Virginia Tech researchers seek ways to extract rare earth minerals from coal

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Virginia Tech engineers have developed a way to extract valuable rare earth minerals from coal and coal byproducts. Eventually they hope to construct a mobile pilot plant in Southwest Virginia.
Virginia Tech engineers have developed a way to extract valuable rare earth minerals from coal and coal byproducts. Eventually they hope to construct a mobile pilot plant in Southwest Virginia.

Funded in part by a U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory grant, Virginia Tech engineers will test HHS technology, a patented process that takes advantage of properties of water-friendly and water-repellent materials to extract rare earth elements from coal waste, according to Roe-Hoan Yoon, a University Distinguished Professor and the Nicholas T. Camicia Professor of Mining and Materials Engineering.The pilot effort is important because rare earth materials, used to create powerful permanent magnets in products as common as computer hard drives to electric motors, are in increasingly short supply, particularly heavy rare earth elements, researchers said.The best known source of the heavy rare earths is the clay from the Jiangxi Province, South China. But those resources are expected to be exhausted within 20 years, while recent studies showed that coal may be an excellent source of higher value heavy rare earth elements.If the currently funded Phase I project is successful, researchers will seek $6 million in Phase II funding that will involve construction and testing of a mobile facility to be tested at different coal cleaning facilities in the central Appalachian coal field.